This post contains spoilers for Bridgerton Season 2.
“Reformed rakes make the best husbands,” matriarch Violet Bridgerton says in The Duke and I, the first book in Julia Quinn’s Bridgerton series. The line, which is a classic one delivered in historical romances, falls on resistant ears, as Violet’s son Anthony snaps back: “Rubbish, and you know it.” Anthony and Simon, the rake in question, were friends at university. In Quinn’s telling, they have “rakish days” in their past: time spent drinking and gambling, gallivanting with “young widows and opera singers,” “running wild with friends.” Anthony uses those days as ammunition in his campaign to keep his younger sister Daphne from falling in love with Simon.
It turns out Book Simon was never really a rake. He’s just lonely and aloof because of his very intense daddy issues, which Daphne, by the end of the story, has helped him work through. But Book Anthony is a bona-fide rake, for real. In The Viscount Who Loved Me, the second book in the Bridgerton series, the gossip writer Lady Whistledown calls Anthony not just a rake but a Rake, with a capital-R: “He doesn’t flaunt his exploits because he doesn’t need to. He knows he will be whispered about by men and women alike […] He knows who he is and what he is done. He has little patience for the foibles of society.”
This wealthy and liberated man is a familiar character to anyone who reads historical romances. The rake—short for “rakehell”—was a stock character in English history, drama, and literature from the 17th through 19th centuries. A libertine, who saw life as a playground, the rake was all about breaking rules and having sex. Their lives were, for obvious reasons, quite interesting to onlookers. Sometimes, they were subjects of titillated gossip; other times, they provided a nice morality tale for the instruction of the young. The series of etchings titled “A Rake’s Progress,” done by artist William Hogarth in the early 18th century, scolded those who idolized the rake by telling the story of one such person’s life. In Hogarth’s series, a young man comes into money when his father dies, spends it in London at orgies and brothels, is almost arrested for his gambling debts, marries a woman for money, goes to debtor’s prison, and dies in an asylum. It does not, Hogarth insisted, pay to be a fuckboy.
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In our day, the rake lives on in romance novels, especially those set (as the Bridgerton books are) in the Regency period. A rake, romance writer Maya Rodale explains in her Dangerous Books for Girls: The Bad Reputation of Romance Novels, Explained, is driven by sex: He has “a heart of stone if he has one at all.” In typical “reformed rake” plots, Rodale writes, the rake and the heroine meet, the rake falls in love at last, and the heroine gets to enjoy the benefits of that previous experience. “The reformed rake plot is one of liberation,” argues Rodale convincingly. For readers, the appeal of the reformed rake is not just that the heroine has ensnared a man who has known a lot of women and decided she is the best one of all, though that is part of it. (In The Viscount Who Loved Me, after Kate and Anthony first have sex, he is undone, gasping, “It’s never been so good”—a classic, and most flattering, thing for a former rake to say.) It’s also that the woman gets to experience an intense amount of pleasure.
The un-raking of the books’ Anthony Bridgerton began in the first season of Netflix’s Bridgerton adaptation. Anthony spent that season in love with an opera singer, sure, but just one particular singer (Siena Rosso, played by Sabrina Bartlett). Jonathan Bailey plays Anthony as a tight-lipped and anxious eldest brother, beset with work and family responsibility, who fools himself into thinking that he could be with—or at least, as he puts it, “protect”—a woman his society would not allow him to marry. (In the end, of course, he cannot do it, and by the time Season 2 opens, Siena Rosso is long gone from London.) There were little moments of traditional rakishness—as when Anthony crudely tells his brother Colin, who has just announced his intention to get married, that he should have taken him to brothels to “wet his wick”—but they felt jarring and out of place, like the writers of the show forgot to do one last pass to get rid of them.
Season 2 has its own little vestigial bits of rake. The first episode is literally titled “Capital R, Rake.” Kate Sharma (Simone Ashley), the love interest of the season, mentions having read about Anthony’s previous exploits in Whistledown’s column, and uses this as one excuse to keep Anthony away from her sister. In one of Kate and Anthony’s many, many near-embraces, when they circle one another, sniffing like very sexy dogs at a dog park, he says to her, “The things I could teach you,” which is a very rake-ish thing to say. (Here comes that sexual liberation.)
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But in general, Anthony’s character is far more pent-up in his feelings than a classical rake. The Siena attachment in the rearview, Anthony has decided in Season 2 that he must marry to fulfill his duty to the family. The first episode has a montage that intersperses Anthony’s series of unsuccessful “interviews” with eligible young ladies, during which he asks them clipped questions (“What if one of your daughters had a penchant for overspending? How would you handle that?”) with scenes of him at his desk, attending to piles of handwritten letters and invoices. In between, we see him leaving sex workers’ beds and joylessly depositing coins on their bureaus. The rings under his eyes grow ever-deeper, and he fails to find anyone who suits him. “You will end up alone, with such expectations,” worries his mother.
This season’s third episode reveals, in flashback, why Anthony is like this, and it’s truly harrowing. When he’s eighteen, his father dies suddenly, and he must become the head of the family. In this social world, the “duties” that come with this includes things like making the call, while your mother is in labor, whether the doctor should save her or the baby. Bailey is very, very good at looking like a small boy in these scenes, utterly unprepared and terrified. You can really see how a young person might emerge from such an experience to become such an unsmiling, straitjacketed man, one who deserves the assessment Violet and Daphne make of his character: “Sharp, quick, a little too exacting.” Or the one Kate makes: “Happiness is not your strength […] exasperation, perhaps; fixation, most definitely.”
Perhaps the writers of Bridgerton wanted to avoid overstressing the “reformed rake” theme because having two seasons in a row with such similar plots would seem like too much. Perhaps Jonathan Bailey was just very good at depicting an unhappy, fixated, exasperated man—who can also, whenever Kate is in the room, bestow a smoldering gaze like none other. Whatever the reason for the change, I welcome it. This Anthony is more interesting than the other one—and much sexier.